COVID-19 and inequalities at work: A gender lens

Politicians love platitudes, especially when trying to persuade us to accept a policy, the burden of which is likely to be unevenly spread and unequally borne. Just as the rallying cry for austerity was ‘we are all in this together’ – though nothing could be further from the truth in a decade during which the rich became infinitely richer while the poor plunged further into poverty – so now we are reminded in those dismal daily briefings that COVID-19 is the great leveller which does not discriminate, affecting prince and pauper alike.

Yet, up and down the land – or more accurately across the twittersphere – a mountain of evidence begs to differ. New studies, produced at an unprecedented rate, show that across a whole range of indicators – economic, health, crime and personal security – the effects of COVID-19 are being unevenly felt according to factors such as gender, race, class, age and disability, among others. Nor are these patterns of disparate impact confined to the UK. They are global and multiplying. The WTO reports that developing countries face distinct and unprecedented challenges as a consequence of the as-yet unknown but likely catastrophic collapse of world trade. The ILO, monitoring the diverse impact of COVID-19 on billions of workers worldwide, anticipates devastating job contraction in sectors such as retail, catering and hospitality services, and hitherto unimaginable health risks in the health and social care sectors. At home, we are witnessing daily the gravely disproportionate loss of life experienced by members of our BAME community, a phenomenon under government review but which Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, attributes primarily to the deleterious health consequences of deeply rooted, race-based social and economic inequality.

Only time will reveal the full extent to which COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality among communities that have already borne the brunt of a decade of austerity, not to mention a lifetime of neoliberal government. In this piece, I want to zoom in on one particular impact of the pandemic’s trail of devastation – work – as it applies to one particular group of workers – women. My purpose is not to privilege gender-based disadvantage in any way nor to deny the deep entanglement of gender with other categories of disadvantage such as race and class in everyday materialisations of inequality.  Rather I aim to bring into view the structural dimensions of inequality outcomes, to track the way in which socially engrained relations and practices provide the scaffolding for inequality outcomes, supported, enabled, and sometimes directly produced by law. Inequality is neither random nor unfortunate; it is structurally engineered, legally enforced, and politically and ideologically driven.

Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on Work and Workers     

The figures emerging from worldwide death rates suggest that COVID-19 poses a considerably greater health risk to men than to women. However, that also means that more of the weight of managing the effects of the virus, including caring for the young, sick, and elderly, is likely to fall upon women. This is one of a number of impacts recently highlighted in a UN policy briefing. The briefing stresses the ‘compound’ economic effects of COVID-19 on women flowing from their weak labour market position in low paid, highly precarious, and socially unprotected sectors of employment, their greater propensity to be living in poverty, along with the practical constraints which a significant increase in unpaid care work is likely to place on women’s ability to pursue paid work. According to the ILO, women workers also face greater health risks because of their disproportionate presence on the frontline of national responses to the pandemic – about 70 per cent of jobs in health and social care sectors worldwide are held by women.

These are global patterns, likely to vary by state and geographic region. However, there can be little doubt that here in the UK, women workers have been distinctly and disproportionately affected by the onslaught of COVID-19. We know that 77% of health care and 83% of social care workers are women. Among the 3.2 million workers facing the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19, women make up 77%. Moreover, 98% of high-risk workers earning poverty wages are women. Women’s population of the grim world of low-paid, insecure employment also leaves them vulnerable to the economic effects of business shutdown including job contraction in the most economically affected sectors. Women comprise 69% of low-paid workers and 74% of the UK part-time workforce. Much of this work is located in sectors most affected by the shutdown. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that one third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners work in shutdown sectors and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners report they are able to work from home. By contrast, only 4% of those working in the highest paid sectors, like finance and insurance, face the prospect of furloughing or worse.

Women’s participation in paid work has long been combined with carrying out the bulk of unpaid domestic labour. An ONS study in 2016 reported that women do 60% more unpaid work than men. With the closure of schools and nurseries, the concentration of family members in one location for long periods of time, and a rise in the number of sick people in need of home nursing, the burden of domestic labour appears to have increased, with women assuming greater responsibility for childcare and home schooling in particular. This has very real and practical consequences for women workers, whether or not they are able to work at home, which current data suggests the majority cannot. For lone parents, 90% of whom are women, the effects of business shutdown are likely to be economically devastating, bearing in mind that around 45% of lone parents already live in poverty.

Accounting for gender inequality in work

It has been much remarked upon during the course of this pandemic that those upon whom we now critically rely are among the least well rewarded for their labour, as evidenced by Holly Hughes in her blog for this issue which highlights the plight of nursery workers. We are extolled to value the contribution of workers hitherto dismissed as ‘low-skilled’ and dispensable, to ‘clap for our carers’ as if, by this late act of recognition, we can undo decades of what Lydia Hayes aptly describes as a process of ‘institutionalised humiliation’: the persistent failure of society, politics and law to accord such workers a modicum of respect, let alone laudation.

How have we arrived in this topsy-turvy world where labour which is so glaringly essential to our individual and collective survival is so little appreciated? Some commentators point to the corrosive effects of market-centred politics and ideology, privileging work perceived to be contributing directly to the production of economic value. The profit imperative elevates economically ‘productive’ work over other kinds of labour. Work which nurtures our sociability and wellbeing carries less value, while work responding to the needs of the vulnerable and dependent carries little value at all, certainly if pay is the measure of worth. It takes a crisis such as a global pandemic to expose the dependence of so-called productive work on socially reproductive labour. The onset of COVID-19 lays bare the reliance of markets on stable social and institutional structures to support their smooth and untrammelled operation. Species survival and a threshold level of collective social wellbeing are, it turns out, preconditions to effective economic functioning.

Are low paid, precarious key workers simply another casualty of capitalism, a product of short-term, myopic, and ultimately misguided economic and social valuations of what kind of work matters? There is much truth to this assertion and certainly capitalism has never been shy about harnessing patterns of inequality, whether based on class, race, gender and, increasingly, age, to the workhorse of production. At the same time, there are aspects of this phenomenon – the mobilisation of inequalities to serve economic ends – which compel attention to the specificities of inequality, in particular the way in which, distinctly or in combination, inequality categories materialise in complexly patterned outcomes. We are none of us surprised that key workers are low paid, nor are we surprised that many of them are women or BAME. What has taken us by surprise is our level of dependence on such workers, provoking a disquieting discomfort about their frankly exploitative circumstances which we strive to quell via the ritual of weekly clapping.

Why have we failed to value such work to date? The answer here lies, not entirely but certainly substantially, in the gender division of labour and its pernicious effects on the social organisation of work. It should be acknowledged at the outset that gender features in the organisation of labouring activities in most societies, although the gendered allocation of tasks may vary from society to society. What is more significant for our purposes is the particular form the gender division of labour takes in any given time and place, and the effect of particular manifestations on the social and economic status of women. I describe the process by which a gender division of labour assumed particular shape and form in contemporary working arrangements at length elsewhere, but in brief terms, the story goes like this: In the late medieval period, before the transition to a predominantly wage-based, market-centred economy, the core economic and social unit was the household (understood in broad terms to encompass family, servants and other dependants) within which both production (making clothes, food, objects for use) and reproduction (care and domestic labour) activities took place. ‘Home’ and ‘work’ were not conceived as two separate spheres serving two separate functions and, although the assignment of tasks by gender allocated the bulk of reproductive work to women, there was no question that this work had economic value – it patently contributed to the economic wellbeing of the household as a whole. During the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a process which in England took place over the 14th through to the 17th century, this way of life broke down. There were of course many aspects to this transition, including industrialisation, urbanisation and technological advances in labouring practices. The emergence of a functional and spatial separation between home and work, as the expansion of production-for-exchange (as opposed to production-for-use) moved such activities out of the household and into the mills and factories, was among the many changes which occurred in this time of transformation. Of course, social reproductive work – feeding, caring for, and reproducing labour – still needed to be done, and indeed continued to be done by women, though now largely in the home.

It is as a consequence of this reorganisation of labouring practices in early capitalism that work and family became increasingly perceived as separate realms, not only of activity but also value. The advent of industrial capitalism triggered a reconfiguration of the labour process which split ‘domestic’ and ‘industrial’ labour, affecting perceptions of the character and value of the work performed. With productive and reproductive work no longer temporally and spatially aligned, their distinctiveness appeared more pronounced, assuming a tangible visible form, which intensified and naturalised a gender division of labour. Productive labour became spatially associated with a place of work – a workplace – while reproductive labour became the province of family life, physically located in the home, which also provided a retreat from the demanding rigours of the production line. Reproductive work became less valued, in part because it was performed by women but also because it was no longer seen to be contributing economically: it did not generate a wage. Reproductive work remained equally essential to the survival of the family unit but in a world in which money now measured value, did not appear so.

It is within this socially instituted, economically enabling framework of labouring practices that we can understand the tenuous position of women workers in today’s labour markets. The social assignment of productive and reproductive labour to men and women respectively endows ideas of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ with concrete meaning, supported by invocations of nature and biology to justify women’s restriction to the sphere of reproduction. The distinct valuation of activities which take place in seemingly separate realms of activity and sensibility (the ‘rational’ world of production versus the ‘affective’ world of reproduction) becomes explicable and, in a world where the measure of success is generally wealth, so too does the privileging of production over reproduction appear as common sense.

The steadily increasing participation of women in paid work since at least the second half of the last century has undoubtedly blurred the boundaries between work and family, generating a new set of political priorities around work/life balance and family-friendly policies. However, the acknowledgment of the interpenetration of work and family at policy level has not significantly influenced social and cultural perceptions of work as a space from which care considerations should ideally be excluded or only occasionally intrude. This mindset fosters a tendency to view care work as not proper work at all: it belongs in the domestic or family realm and is impelled by affection, not self-interest. Inevitably, this affects the valuation of such work when performed for a wage. It is no accident that the health, care, cleaning and catering sectors are dominated by women, nor that much of that work is low paid and precarious. Equally, the low value the labour market accords to the provision of services reflects the historical privileging of commodity-producing labour – not that, as the COVID-19 crisis has also revealed, there is much of that going on here in the UK.

The collusion of law

The tenacious grip of a gender division of labour, made material in patterns of occupational sex segregation which continue to infuse labour market structures, is at the root of the disparate impact of COVID-19 on women workers. Labour law has grown up in and around this gender bifurcation, adopting and adapting to its rhythms against the backdrop of centuries of changing gender politics and practice. While the substantive content of law has undergone alteration, often in response to perceived changes in gender roles and relations, the formal architecture of law has stayed broadly the same, remaining steeped in historically legated categories and concepts now so deeply engrained in our legal fabric as to appear immovable. The classic legal distinction between a contract of service (employment) and a contract for services (self-employment) is one such obsolescence. Regrettably, the bulk of employment rights, and many others besides, continue to depend upon its application. The distinction emerged as the hook upon which to hang employment rights during a time and under conditions in which public policy and social expectations coalesced around the male breadwinner ideal. Employment rights were designed to provide a safety net for full-time, long term, care-unencumbered labour market participants (men) at the expense of those whose participation tended to be part-time, temporary and care-encumbered (women). These were workers who moved in and out of the labour force, providing a flexible army to meet the needs of fluctuating market demand. Social security, captured in the mid-twentieth century model of the welfare state, was similarly predicated on the male breadwinner / female caregiver ideal. Indeed, although social welfare provision has since undergone many transformations, there are echoes still of the single earner model in the framework of Universal Credit, which, Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group has argued is “gender discrimination by design”.

As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the standard/non-standard worker model, upon which the legal distinction between employment and self-employment was grafted, is increasingly at odds with the practical realities of working life. There is no standard worker, just a plethora of divergent work formations, encompassing zero-hours contracts, agency workers, gig platforms and many more. Work has become feminised not just in the sense that the proportion of women participating in paid work has exponentially increased but also because the working conditions traditionally associated with women’s work – low-paid, precarious, and service-based rather than manufacturing – have become the norm.

Notwithstanding these well-charted changes in working arrangements, the traditional employment/self-employment dichotomy continues to underpin much of labour protection, the assumption being that the so-called self-employed, by virtue of their ‘independence’ are in no need of protection from unscrupulous employers. That many of those who fall within the scope of self-employed are deeply economically dependent on the whims and fortunes of employers whom law has placed at a convenient distance from their workforce has provoked increasing expressions of concern. The development of a concept of ‘worker’ to capture such dependent working arrangements, and its incorporation into a wave of ‘New Labour’ legislation in the late 1990s (e.g. the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and Working Time Regulations 1998) has only partially alleviated this problem. Meanwhile, worrying trends in judicial interpretation and policy engagement with the ‘worker’ concept suggest that it is taking form in the shadow of employment, mimicking the features of the contract of employment to gain meaning and acceptance.

It should come as no surprise then that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) is premised on employment status, thereby excluding working arrangements which fall outside the so-called ‘standard’ model. The Scheme’s many limitations have been highlighted by others and some have been corrected in subsequent Government iterations, but what is perhaps the biggest weakness of the scheme is one it shares with virtually all existing employment protection legislation: it does not target, and indeed actively excludes, those most in need of its benefits. The Coronavirus Self-Employment Income Support Scheme also struggles to capture working arrangements which fall precariously between the cracks of traditional legal categories. The formal requirements of both schemes fail to encompass the myriad of legally sanctioned ways in which one person’s labour can be appropriated by another. Unfortunately, it is where the risk of and propensity to engage in exploitation is greatest that legal protections fail, and deliberately so. The whole point of such arrangements after all is to avoid the burden of regulation.

Too many women workers fall between the cracks. A recent survey of 2,600 care workers found that the vast majority of those surveyed believed they would not be paid if they absented themselves from work either to self-isolate or because their employer was failing to provide them with adequate Personal Protective Equipment. The plight of care workers is emblematic of those who work in environments where poor pay and conditions and insecure employment creates low expectations of employers, further enabling workers’ exploitation and abuse. The substantial presence in the care and domestic work sector of significant numbers of migrant workers compounds this vulnerability. Many are on visas which preclude access to public funding, including statutory sick pay, universal credit, and the benefits of Coronavirus income support schemes. For these and others who live and work precariously, the economic shock of COVID-19 is nothing short of devastating.

Women workers are not alone in carrying a disproportionate weight of the economic fallout of COVID-19. Countless studies, such as the Covid Inequality Project, highlight the vulnerability of young people, migrants, and low-paid precarious workers. In the midst of COVID-19, inequality patterns are converging into a perfect storm of poverty, destitution, sickness and death. Clapping does nothing to prevent this catastrophe nor do government platitudes. COVID-19 has fully exposed the inequality faultline at the heart of the neoliberal project, triggering an economic, social and political earthquake of unprecedented magnitude. How do we build a shockproof social infrastructure? Where do we start? We start with inequality, its history, causes, effects, and intersections, and we craft a new political vision tasked with its elimination. Because of its centrality and importance in our everyday lives, work is a vital site of social transformation. It is important, however, that we conjure work imaginaries that penetrate and transcend the gendered world of work to which we have too long turned a blind eye.


Joanne Conaghan is a Professor of Law at the University of Bristol and a researcher in the field of law and gender. Her areas of expertise include sexual violence, human rights and labour law and she has published extensively in these fields.

Image credit: Chris Barbalis on Unsplash